CUSTOM VOLKSWAGEN AMAROK
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK ALLEN
HARD CORE ROCKER
PERHAPS NOT REALLY ‘HARD CORE’, BUT WELL CUSTOMISED TO SUIT ITS INTENDED PURPOSE – MARK ALLEN CRAWLS UNDERNEATH THE DAKAR RALLY PREPARED VW AMAROKS FOR A CLOSER LOOK
Regular readers of Overlander will no doubt recall last month I noted that the Amaroks we drove through the South American 2010 Dakar handled the terrain with total ease, but they did have a few modifications – mainly for our safety and to satisfy race officials given the potential for mishaps. Some inclusions were to its detriment, but most offered far improved offroad and touring safety and ability.
Larger diameter tyres with 245/75R17 BF Goodrich All Terrain pattern were fitted to the standard alloy 17 inch rims, along with twin Bilstein shock absorbers with remote reservoirs on each corner. While the front Macpherson struts were obviously a complete Bilstein replacement, along with an extra forward, outer-mounted parallel shock, what wasn’t overly apparent was whether the rear leaf spring pack was stock or an aftermarket version. These vehicles were fitted with a 5-leaf pack with the lower two load-leaves being 8mm and the top three being 6mm thick and retained with steel wraps, double eye (or military)-wraps at the leading end and shackles at the tail end – all of which are sprung-over the axle and similar to most other offerings in Australia. Limiting straps were added to the rear suspension to ensure no over-extension of the shocks, should the Amaroks become airborne during offroad antics.
The twin rear shocks were mounted for and aft of the rear solid axle – all great, but it appeared the forward leaning shocks on each side were connected to factory mounts in the chassis bracing at the top and the axle housing at the rear, while the rearward leaning two shocks where connected to aftermarket fittings at the chassis and axle housing. While there is nothing wrong with how these (standard position) shocks are mounted, they are notably different to most of our rear-leaf-sprung utes, which have either both rear shocks leaning rearwards, or one leaning rear and one forward.
The front strut design is also somewhat different to most versions seen here in Australia in that the lower end of the strut that is mounted to the lower wishbone actually ‘straddles’ the CV (or front drive shaft) instead of being mounted either in front or to the rear. This Clevis (mounting) joint on the lower end of the shock has the benefit of a much larger surface area on its pin and bush within the lower wishbone, providing far less wear and tear, plus being proportionally stronger than an eye (or single bolt) attachment point.
The main downside I experienced with the front suspension in combination with the larger diameter tyres was the abysmal turning circle. To ensure nothing hit on suspension components or tyres, the steering rack was modified to restrict lock-to-lock movement of the steering wheel. What should have been an easy U-turn, or 3-point turn, became a multiple-point backwards / forwards / backwards / forwards foray that surely would have looked rather humorous to onlookers. At one time we tried to drive down a tight spiral driveway into an underground car park and… you guessed it, the Amaroks wouldn’t turn tight enough to take the spiral driveway in one go. 20 to 30 frustrating first / reverse changes later (plus a few cranky motorists also trying to park that couldn’t work out why we kept almost driving into the walls) and we made it down to the depths of the hotel parking lot…not wanting to think about how we were going to get the Amarok out in the morning, we slunk red-faced into our rooms to sleep on it.
Time will tell the exact suspension configuration we will get…or would it be too much to ask for factory fittings of twin Bilsteins on Aussie versions, but do look into that steering…please VW?
NOISE AND COMFORT
Most Euro designed and built vehicles are the epitome of on-road quietness and comfort, combined with brilliant driving pleasure. While these (South American built) Amaroks where indeed brilliant to drive, they did have the interior head lining and carpet removed to make way for a full race compliant internal roll bar. The retractable seat belts had been replaced with 6-point race harnesses, plus there was just seating for three in our vehicles – two single race seats in the front and one mounted on the right hand side in the rear.
Our seats were 100 percent race orientated with a fixed, single piece nature and little in the way of padding for the dairy-air. Road ready versions will be far more comfortable and user friendly but exact fit and feel is yet unsure.
We did manage a few high speed runs while offroad (say about two thirds of the max on the dial of 240km/h – you do the maths, but it was much faster than most will ever do here in Australia) and it comes as no surprise that the Amaroks handled such high speeds with ease given the German origins with Autobahns and the like.
The Amaroks were used to ferry TV crew, back-up personnel and journalists from all over the world – many of which had no idea of 4WDing. To put it bluntly, these vehicles were given a no-bull hiding by many-a-non-car-person that should have seen them develop all kinds of faults (although they did not) given we drove through some of the harshest terrain in the world.
We even managed to get a couple of Amaroks bogged in mud: once we’d inadvertently broken through a thick, dry crust near a river…down we went with no hope of diff locks or traction control ever getting us out. The good old shovel, sand tracks and straps were used to slowly extricate ourselves. One point here, and one that will be reported back to the design engineers at VW, was that we broke a screw-in recovery eye. Part of the problem is the angle that the eye is mounted to the chassis as compared to the line of pull, while the other problem was that the straps we were using were not snatch straps, instead just non-stretch tow straps. While we did try the gently-does-it-approach, we did have to use a little force to get the vehicles unstuck. Full marks though to the VW personnel on site, who inspected and saved the broken parts to take back to headquarters for evaluation.
Inside, our Amarok was installed with a GPS tripmeter to tell us (politely) were to go as we delved deep into the Atacama Desert, Andes and more inhospitable places where not even grass, let alone animals grow or habitat. Also fitted was an electronic device that monitored our every movement, ensuring that if we did get geographically challenged, someone, somewhere would know of our plight. The only downside to having these live saving high-tech instruments installed (on the dash) was that the passenger side airbag had to be turned off via a key lock on the side of the dash – no big deal, considering we were strapped in with harnesses and protected by roll cages! I’m guessing that ability to turn the passenger side airbag off will remain as standard. The standard 12 volt power outlet on top of the dash, had been removed to cater for other electronic gear, but will be ideal for our over-dependence on street navigators, and will rid those bothersome power leads running down the front of your dash.
Word has it that VW considered using a monocoque system, but reverted to a separate ladder frame chassis and body – great move for what this vehicle is intended for!
The brakes were left standard (as far as I could tell without taking wheels off) on our utes. The front disc, rear drum set up is well proven on commercial vehicles carrying a load, so will remain as such. The only component I could not see any sign of was a load proportioning valve above the rear diff; perhaps it was removed from our utes, or perhaps they just don’t have them – highly unlikely – or perhaps they have an alternate clever way of achieving the same thing…we’ll see later this year eh!
Have a close look at the bottom lip of the rear diff housing; that rear bolt-on cover (at the outer edges) is just waiting to be snagged and bent on a rock to allow diff oil to stain the driveway. VW are not the only ones with a similar design though and it looks somewhat similar in build to some American Dana diffs…or perhaps it is Dana inspired!
In the ute tub, our vehicle was fitted with what may be an excellent optional extra for tying down your load, in addition to the 4 standard corner tie-downs. Moveable hooks ala’ Nissan Navara, were installed high up on the sides to tie ‘down’…err…tie ‘up’ our cargo of spare wheels, extra fuel and recovery gear. Put them on the floor please VW - they should be tie-downs, not tie-ups!
The factory-standard push-button, centre-console mounted diff-lock was tried several times. While no diff lock can help considerably in steep soft sand, or bottomless mud (both places we managed to get stuck), it comes into its own when traversing rocky and irregular surfaces that outdo the suspension travel. Full marks for VW for providing a locker and traction control, although time will tell as to whether the traction control is cancelled when the locker is activated. The Triton ute does this and in many cases was found to be better with traction control left on (as its working on all four wheels) instead of flicking on the rear locker (that only works on the two rear wheels).
Having put over 5000km in this Amarok, there’s no doubting is was a much harsher ride than standard, there was less movement in the cabin (for the occupants) compared to a stocker and pitiful steering lock compared to civi-versions. These few negatives were worth every cent to our safety while driving on long fast sections of bitumen, together with incredibly remote, harsh areas of sand, rock and mud. All other features of this highly-anticipated ute were, in short, excellent. The engine performance, the gearing, on and off-road handling in high and low range were all good enough to take on the major players here in Australia.
Bring it on Volkswagen and how about offering some of your aftermarket goodies albeit with a little more user-friendliness built in?